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Charity questions? Give where the need is greatest

Here's where your dollars will do the most good: outside the U.S.

December 24, 2012|By Peter Singer
  • Two children stricken down with malaria rest at the local hospital in the small village of Walikale, Congo.
Two children stricken down with malaria rest at the local hospital in the… (Schalk van Zuydam / Associated…)

As the end of the year nears, you no doubt have been receiving a lot of mail requesting your charitable dollars. More donations are made at this time of year than in any other month. But to which organizations should you give, and why? To your house of worship? Or to your school or college? What about to medical research, or to the arts?

My answer: None of the above. Given the huge discrepancy between how much most Americans have and how little the world's poorest people have, your dollars are likely to do more good if you give to charities helping people living in extreme poverty in developing countries — as long as you are careful to give only to the most effective ones.

Extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank, means living on less than $1.25 a day. More than 1 billion people struggle to get by on this paltry amount. They work hard but have little chance of escaping the poverty trap into which they were born. They have life expectancies up to 30 years less than we do. Their children die from diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malaria, which no longer kill people in developed countries. UNICEF estimates that more than 8 million children die from avoidable, poverty-related causes each year. That's 22,000 child deaths that we could prevent, every day.

I'm not religious, but if I were, I would belong to a religion that told me to help the poorest rather than to give to build new churches or temples.

I teach at an elite private university, where the students have amazing educational opportunities, but when I have to choose between making further improvements to the already excellent education of privileged students or giving as many children as possible the opportunity to get some schooling rather than none, I know what to choose.

Medical research can churn through billions of dollars for no gain at all, while every day thousands of children die from diseases that we already know how to prevent or cure. We need to provide the means to spread the most basic healthcare — and clean water, sanitation and bed nets to prevent malaria — because by doing so we can save lives for a fraction of the cost of saving lives in developed countries. (Donating for research on diseases that affect the poor, where relatively little is now being spent, is more defensible.)

I enjoy visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Should I give to it, or similar institutions? A few years ago the Met spent $45 million on a painting by the 14th century Italian artist Duccio. I've seen it. It's a small but beautiful painting by a historically significant artist.

But how does adding it to the Met's already stupendous collection of paintings compare with repairing an obstetric fistula in an impoverished woman? As it happens, the amount the Met paid for the Duccio would, according to the Fistula Foundation, pay for the surgery needed by 100,000 young women whose lives will otherwise be ruined. (For more details, see www.fistulafoundation.org.) Is it more important that Duccio's painting hangs in the Met, rather than wherever the next-highest bidder would have put it, or that 100,000 young outcast women have surgery that can give them back a normal life? To me, that's not a difficult question.

So I think our charity dollars should be directed to the greatest need, which means outside the United States. Yet only 8 cents of every dollar Americans give to charity goes to organizations working internationally (and not all of them are helping the poor), according to Giving USA.

The good news is that this figure has been rising steadily in recent years. Americans like to think that when it comes to foreign aid, we are a generous nation. But in fact, even when both government aid and private charity are added together, we give, in proportion to gross national income, less than half as much as nations like Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

As for all that junk mail you are getting from charities: Ignore it. Would you buy a used car with no warranty because the owner tells you it runs well? Not likely. At a minimum, you'd do a test drive, and if you don't know much about cars yourself, you'd be wise to get an independent agency to check it over.

It's the same with charities. Not every charity will use your money well. Finding out which ones are effective isn't easy. Don't look just at the percentage of
income that a charity spends on administration. It might spend very little on administration, but because it doesn't employ enough staff to assess the programs it supports, its programs may do no good at all. GiveWell has pioneered rigorous assessment techniques for charities. Take a look
at its top recommendations (www.GiveWell.org). Some other charities may be highly effective, even though their methods don't lend themselves to GiveWell's quantitative methods of assessment, so on www.thelifeyoucansave.com, I've listed some others that are worth considering.

There are other causes that I haven't mentioned that are worthy of support: reducing the vast universe of pain and suffering we inflict on animals, for instance, or combating climate change. The guiding principle is to give where you will have the most impact.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics,” “One World” and “The Life You Can Save.”

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